1970s nightmares part 3: wading through the stiffs to get to Rachel Sweet

Back in the late-seventies I really liked multi-band concert bills, especially the Sunday night punk cabarets that started at The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm and then switched to The Lyceum in The Strand. I don’t remember exactly when and where, but I also took a punt on the 5 Live Stiffs tour featuring Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric and Larry Wallis, that hit the UK for a month in the autumn of 1977. Back then punk and new wave acts did proper tours, heading as far north as Aberdeen or Inverness and doing around 30 dates in as many days. Since I was going to shows in and around London, that generally meant I saw touring bands as they were warming up or else worn out at the end of a month long trek around the British Isles. I don’t know whether I caught 5 Live Stiffs at the beginning or end of the tour, but it was a long way from being the greatest show on earth
My understanding is that on the 5 Live Stiffs tour the order of the acts was rotated, and the night I went Larry Wallis was on first. There wasn’t much atmosphere because most the the audience hadn’t arrived but the ex-Pink Fairy knew how to rock and tunes like Police Car came across as full-on body-odour boogie. Nick Lowe was a lot better and only partly because there was more of a crowd for him. Lowe wrote songs that were so catchy they should have been infections diseases, and I’ll take a a great pop tune over boogie every time!  If I recall correctly, the Lowe highlights were Heart Of The City and I Knew The Bride, but I may be imagining that. And surely Dave Edmunds, who was playing in the band, sang lead on the latter. Since Heart Of The City is my favourite example of Nick Lowe-style stomp, I hope he played it – but 32 years on I’m not sure I can remember the set perfectly! My memory also tells me that Lowe and Edmunds were part of the Larry Wallis backing band, and that Wallis played with them too. Wreckless Eric was up next, and while it was fun to see him doing Whole Wide World, his act came across as nothing special after Lowe’s perfect pop. Ian Dury was a real trooper, and he had some rockin’ tunes like Blockheads, but his slower material didn’t work so well despite his flair for showmanship. As for Elvis Costello, I’ve never really liked his whining voice. His first album had two really classy tracks in the form of Mystery Dance and Waiting For The End Of The World, but it was all downhill from there. Live Costello just bored me.
The first Stiff live package was a mixed bag, but that didn’t stop me checking out the next one. The Be-Stiff tour hit the road in the autumn of 1978. It featured Wreckless Eric again, Lene Lovich, Jona Lewie, Mickey Jupp and Rachel Sweet. Wreckless Eric came across as a 1977 re-run, acceptable but not worth seeing twice. Mickey Jupp was better, enjoyable pub rock but more than one rung down from The Feelgoods and The Hot Rods. You know someone isn’t a first division rocker when the most interesting thing about them is the fact that Bill Legend – the drummer from their old band Legend – went on to join T. Rex Moving on, I’m a huge fan of novelty pop but Jona Lewie and Lene Lovich are acts that give this genre a bad name. Lovich’s mannered stage movements and vocal warblings proved particularly irritating. But this crap didn’t matter, the real reason I caught the Be-Stiff tour was to see Rachel Sweet.
“The Forgotten Lady of Stiff” didn’t have much of a stage act but she had a great repertoire! Her material was an amazing mix of pop, rock, country and soul; her best tunes being Pin A Medal On Mary and Truckstop Queen, but everything on her first album Fool Around is a total groove. This really was ‘pure pop for now people’! Rachel Sweet was like a cross between Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Chris Clark and Sylvie Vartan, for the blank generation! If you didn’t like Rachel Sweet you didn’t like pop music, and were probably either a headbanger or so far up your own arsehole that you got your kicks contemplating Greenslade or some other prog slop!  Listening to Rachel Sweet’s voice on that Stiff tour, it was mind blowing to think she was the same age as me, sweet sixteen in 1978! She may have looked like the teenager she undoubtedly was, but she sounded much more seasoned. Sweet is probably the most underrated female artist to emerge from the new wave, and shits all over Goth bores like Siouxsie Sioux (who grabbed loadsa attention despite a complete lack of talent and a penchant for wearing swastikas). Truckstop Queen, which was on the Akron compilation album, remains one of my all time favourite tunes to this day. Sweet ‘retired’ from the record industry in 1982 after making just 4 albums, although she subsequently did some TV work and recorded the odd song.
As far as I was concerned, Stiff might as well have not bothered with a package tour in 1978, they could have sent Rachel Sweet out alone and I’d have been happy. There wasn’t a Stiff tour in 1979 and when they got around to doing another one in 1980, I couldn’t be arsed with it. The 1980  Son Of Stiff tour featured Ten Pole Tudor, Any Trouble, Dirty Looks, The Equators and Joe “King” Carrasco. Thirty years on I’m still convinced I made the right decision when I decided to give it a miss.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!


Comment by Michael K on 2009-07-30 12:55:00 +0000

Rachel Sweet is hot!

Comment by Magic Michael on 2009-07-30 14:46:52 +0000

Next you’ll be telling us you think Lena Zavaroni is ‘a groove sensation’. And she is!

Comment by Jonathan H on 2009-07-30 15:41:37 +0000

And by the time the second Stiffs tour got to Newcastle I was there to interview Rachel for tip top local fanzine Out Now. I still have a signed copy of her album. She later sang the theme tune for the first film of Hairspray -hope she got points. You are right about Truckstop Queen.
Shame her career faded out like it did.

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-07-30 15:56:15 +0000

I know you showed me the signed album, and only a couple of years ago too! I’m still dead jealous…. At least I’ve got your super rare Ward 34 single, and seeing that would make the odd record collector I know sick with envy! I could easily get a hundred knicker for those 7 inches of vinyl heaven – but of course I wouldn’t part with even a fraction of an inch of them for love or money!

Comment by Nicole Black in a state of undress with Michael K and Stewart Home but posing as Hughie Green on 2009-07-30 16:31:37 +0000

Zavaroni (smokes) rocks but Bobby Crush does it for me every time. Let’s have a look at the clapometer. And remember, Paula….WHO’S THE DADDY?

Comment by raymond anderson on 2009-07-30 18:45:51 +0000

anyone who covers a track from Atlantic’s “Sweet Soul Music” compilation is allright!
Another package I saw in Jan 1979 was Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp tour with Bette Bright and her Illuminations and The Headboys supporting. That was a LONG night. Heavily weighted to an over 25 crowd.

Comment by raymond anderson on 2009-07-30 18:49:36 +0000

aargh This Is Soul compilation……brain cells . what brain cells?

Comment by Collapse Of Geographical Significance on 2009-07-30 22:08:45 +0000

kill kill kill fucking kill everything

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-07-30 22:55:49 +0000

Raymond, I gave Joe Jackson a miss coz I considered him uncool, I’d probably like him now… well maybe not… but I was under 25 then, and I’m well over it now…. And what fantastic material those working with Sweet selected for her… She should have stuck with ’em….
Nicole, didn’t Zavaroni have anorexia? Or was it a cover up for the rocks?
Collapse – A1 link and performance!

Comment by Scott MacLeod on 2009-07-31 00:04:31 +0000

Britney Spears 1981 (if Britney could sing)

Comment by Michael Kay on 2009-07-31 00:21:46 +0000

When Britney Sings – I hear violence…

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-07-31 00:34:09 +0000

And Britney is my secret daughter… just compare some images of us and you’ll see how closely we are related, you really see it when Brit has her head shaved…. then there’s no hair to hide the close resemblance!
And I liked Rachel Sweet better before you got the major label make-over…. Be Stiff:

Comment by Dr Anton Phibes (Dec.) on 2009-07-31 09:46:17 +0000

Thought Stiff had, for the most part, pretty poor taste when it came to signing acts. Dury & “New Rose” were the high points for me.
Mind you, I did go and see a Dr Feelgood show when they were supported by another Stiff signing, Roogalator, and I was suprised at how good Roogalator were. Seeing rentapunks trying to pogo to them added to the entertainment value.

Comment by Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad on 2009-07-31 11:31:11 +0000

Oh, I remember Roogalator — one of them, a guy called Nicky Plytas, went on to form part of the fabric of very early ONU Sound collective. Steve Beresford played with ’em too if I remember rightly, and he’s certainly a very interesting musician, playing with everyone from Prince Far I to the Slits to African Heads Charge to Jah Llloyd.

Comment by Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad on 2009-07-31 11:35:30 +0000

I was just a little too young for Roogalator, Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, The High Roads etc, but the next wave just a few months after ’em, Radio Stars, Hammersmith Gorillas etc , that was when I just about came of age and paid attention.

Comment by Michael K, caught in flagrante with Pamela des Barres the daughters of the american revolution on 2009-07-31 11:57:50 +0000

Joe Jackson…even now the sound of his voice can grate my teeth.

Comment by Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad on 2009-08-01 02:48:05 +0000

Barney Bubbles was involved in a lot of those first wave punk/pub rock record sleeve designs , aswell as doing Hawkwind too.

Comment by Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad on 2009-08-01 02:58:43 +0000

“I was in awe of Barney because I recognised even in my unformed mind of the time that he was a bona fide talent, that he was seminal to a whole school of design that you can still see aspects of today. The sort of things he did in print are still around in magazines like “The Face” and god knows what. All that stuff he did for Stiff a bit later. Always a sad character but a genuine hippie.”

Comment by Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad on 2009-08-01 03:56:53 +0000

Barney Bubbles lived in Basset Road.

Comment by Diane on 2010-02-10 02:47:07 +0000

“Sweet is probably the most underrated female artist to emerge from the new wave…”
Yes! Thanks for saying so!

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